When People Become Neighbors
by STEFAN McNINCH
Weather man said no rain in sight, someone mumbled from behind.
It was warm but dry, a mild Southern winter that made everyone restless in their suits. When there wasn’t the shuffle of wool, the wind hissed through the naked trees. The sky was low and a teasing grey.
I looked around at the second funeral I had ever attended. I didn’t even remember the guy’s first name. The wife of the deceased—or more likely some enterprising child of his—had sent out a mass invitation to everyone in his Microsoft Office contact list. I interned for him eleven years ago in college. He had always remembered my first name.
The widowed Mrs. Womack stood next to the pastor and plucked the petals of her rose. Without taking his eyes from his text, the pastor intently gripped her trembling fingers and withdrew them from their improper task. Her stature exhaled and some woman offered her a tissue; for your mascara, she mimed.      
The wife began to say a few words but I couldn’t take my eyes off of a small boy wrapped tightly against the legs of his father, who bore the embrace without resistance. The little boy’s head turned side to side, scanning the crowd, for he had so many questions—had no one else all these questions?
A few relatives leaned in with a hand on his shoulder and whispered to him. Perhaps they told him that it’s okay to cry. His grandfather lay dead, maybe a man he flew to see twice a year, for holidays, whom he loathed to hug because of a scratchy beard. Did he know that he was named after his grandfather? No, only that he could not remember the man’s voice, let alone one word the man had ever said to him. That man was a photograph in his memory, of a face kept distant due to a scratchy beard. The boy wanted to know why, standing in the clothes normally reserved for church, which he visited only as often as he did his grandfather, he was supposed to feel emotions so contrary to what he normally felt in them (unless, of course, he was Catholic).
Would anyone ever be able to tell him who his grandfather truly was? Both our questions fell with the petals and pebbles into the man’s grave; so many hearts so near to one at rest, sharing only those profound secrets that give a casket its weight.

Karen and I lay in bed reading. I was still thinking about that child at the funeral, how surely I knew what it was to be him, and how much he reminded me of my daughter, Gwen. I told people she got her name from my penchant for fairy tales, but really it was Karen’s late mother’s name. I sighed intently.
“Aw, are you doing okay? Did you know that guy well?”  
“I’m still buzzed from it. His wife smiled like an idiot all through the wake. I can’t get that image out of my head.” I went to hold my wife, tighter than usual. I kissed her forehead—
“I really don’t have the energy for more than half a blowjob tonight. Sorry.”
She fell asleep shortly after I let go of her. I watched her, twisting my neck to find a glimpse of the one angle that I had always before been able to capture and hold for a few overpowering moments. An angle usually happened upon incidentally—that is to say it still required my attention. An angle which startled me upon the realization that this rare view of her, either through the external circumstance of proper lighting and shadow, or through the internal faculties required to appreciate it above all others, was known to my soul and my soul alone. That is the angle I had at that moment lost.
I noticed a light erupt under our bedroom door. I walked out into the hall and knocked on Gwen’s door. The light in her room shut off and I entered.
“Hey kiddo, what are you doing awake?”
“I was reading.”
“Oh, whatcha reading?” I sat down on her bed.
Jurassic Park.”
“Are you serious?” I felt for it on her nightstand and bounced the heavy book in my hand. She must have found it in my study.
“What grade are you in?”
“Third.”
“This is a pretty big—”
“Daddy are you gonna die?”
I laughed lightly and sighed, the way I had seen fathers answer the question on T.V. “Eventually, yes. But I promise not till you’re old and married to a boy—” I leaned in close until our noses touched and tickled away her “Ewww!”
I asked her if she wanted her covers on or off. She said off and I kissed her forehead and wished her sweet dreams. I closed the door behind me and heard the lamp click on, like a picture being taken. 

Hot dogs were on sale. That’s a tough one. I used to eat them everyday in the summer when I was younger—two a day, sometimes—out by the pool when the mosquitoes weren’t too bad. Pretty sure we didn’t have any relish at home, though, and I wasn’t in the mood to make it a whole operation.
My black suit was an explosion of contrast with the welcoming white floor and pastels of the fruit aisle. My tie was yellow at least. I think it might have been a power tie.
The kid in front of me walked with his cell phone open, drifting left and right and blocking any path available to pass. He stopped every now and then to scroll through his phonebook, so I rested my weight against the handlebar and stepped slowly and deliberately, allowing each squeak of the wheels a rise and fall.      
His left hand hung at his side, curled into the habited anticipation of a cigarette. He was wearing a bright red dress shirt and slacks and had that sort of neutral smell of cologne for young professionals: a totally uncharismatic but not unpleasant scent; just efficient enough to cover the smell of hair gel. 
I was startled when he banged his phone against the back of his head, rehearsing some product branding monologue. There, I became aware of the deli.
I had never purchased anything from the deli before. It had always seemed reserved for grown-ups. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I waited for someone to order first, paying attention to the rough quantity and the steps involved. I then bought 1/3 pound of hard salami, sliced “number 2.” Proudly, I squeaked uninterrupted towards the sourdough bread. The annoying kid had moved on; he wasn’t old enough to shop at the deli.  
On my way home, through the neighborhood, some shiny blue SUV ran a stop sign and nearly smashed into my front end. I bet anything it was an Asian chick. Whenever someone made an error in traffic, I had long ago decided to retain all impulses of anything violent or vulgar; instead, I would give them a slow shake of my head. I hoped that upon viewing the severity of the shake (for that I relied upon my unwavering eyes), the hapless recipient would in that moment extrapolate from the error in his or her driving and come to the correct realization that this single human being, who had only so recently come into existence, had already wholly disapproved of theirs.
When I got home I went straight for the salami. I sat at the kitchen table eating it on sourdough. Karen walked in and asked how work went. I shrugged. She commented that she hadn’t ever seen me eat a salami sandwich before. It tasted like my grandma’s house, and smelled like the wet dirt of her chicken coop, and had the texture of the fugitive tufts of foam leaking from the busted cushion of my grandpa’s tractor. I’d bounce along in his lap, pretending I was steering as my soft hair, then blonde, brushed against his beard. But I didn’t tell her any of that. I shrugged and offered her a bite, which she declined.
The doorbell rang and Karen walked Samantha into the kitchen and offered her some iced tea. Sam said no thanks, but Karen poured two glasses anyway. I stole the surplus when Karen was showing her guest the new Christmasware she had gotten on sale.
“You know I was at Shirley’s dinner party last month,” Sam started. “It was incredible: they had filet mignon for all twelve of us. She made this, um, what was it…squash soup. From scratch. And she had a matching set of twelve Christmas plates and bowls. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Why not? I could host a dinner party for twelve with matching Christmasware,” Karen defended.
“No you couldn’t,” I said with my mouth full.
“Yes I could!”
“We don’t have a full set of twelve.”
“Yes we do. A matching set. I just bought them!”
“Not bowls.”
“Well I wouldn’t make soup. From scratch,” she glanced at Sam.
They talked more about the party and what was going on with the other people and if whomever was back from wherever and so and so at work—“Karen do we have any green peppers?” Karen hadn’t touched her iced tea either, so I debated on stealing it as well. Though it would probably make me too full, and I was at a good place with fullness. But damnit I still wanted— “Honey? Sorry to interrupt. Do we have green peppers?” She ignored me. Did they really care that much about each other’s lives—I certainly didn’t care enough about the details of my day to carry on a whole conversation— “Boobies!”
“What the hell is wrong with you? No, we don’t have any green peppers.”
Our facial gestures battled to a stalemate, so I thought it an appropriate time to get the mail. 
I stood over the trashcan tossing out ads and solicitations. I stared at the bills that asked for me by name. Daniel Fulton, Dan Fulton, Mr. Daniel Fulton. I wondered who I was today.
I heard some cartoons coming from upstairs. I gave Gwen’s room a long glance, but I had work to catch up on.

Of the two options presently available to me in the morning, being that I might either hurry to finish the work that I didn’t do last night or not show up altogether and hope they would cancel each other out, I chose to stay home. Karen had already left so she didn’t get to hear my awesome plan.
I went downstairs and made some waffles. The waffle maker was a bit dusty and I couldn’t remember whether or not I had to use cooking spray, so I didn’t. The batter came out a smidgeon too watery and I had flour clinging to most of my stomach, but by the end of it I had fashioned twelve medium-well waffles.
Gwen came down sleepily but fully prepared for school. She was surprised to see me there— 
“Oh, shit. I forgot to pack you a lunch. I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“Mommy makes me lunch before she leaves for work. How come you’re not at work?”
“I took the day off.”
“Can you just do that?”
“We’ll see.”
“Can I do that?”
“No.”
We sat on the barstools in front of the island, eating side by side. We were silent except for heavy crunches not generally associated with waffles. Gwen added a few desserts to her lunch while I pried out the dried gunk stuck to the waffle maker.
“Thanks for breakfast, daddy. I’ll see you later.”
I hesitated; I’d miss my chance if I let her get any farther: “Hey… Do you think I could walk you to school?”
“Really?”
“Yeah, how about it?”

The school was only seven or eight blocks down the main road of the neighborhood. Kids raced on their bikes, weaving around slow-moving cars and past a pair of middle-aged women power-walking. The clouds were still grey but the streets were full of mobile color.
Gwen talked about how her teacher liked scuba diving and that she even brought in a copy of a video she took underwater. I missed most of the details because I was trying to decide the best time—or if it was even appropriate—to hold her hand. I didn’t see any other parents walking their kids and her hands were well below mine and my palms were kind of sweaty. What if she noticed?
   She was holding the straps of her backpack, so I lightly placed a finger between her thumb and forefinger, and she quickly released her grip to sneak her little hand into mine. She looked up and smiled at me. I asked her what time I should pick her up.

I watched Judge Alex for two hours, until the point when I began to respect him. I turned it off and called my mom: I needed some pity. Instead she yelled at me for planning to quit my job and told me I needed to get whatever it was “out of my system.” I crunched on tortilla chips until she hung up.
I stuck the rest of the waffles in a Ziploc bag and drove to the library after getting directions from the internet. When I was holding Jurassic Park last night, I realized how long it had been since I had read a book.
The library had eight front doors, but only one that was unlocked. I held it open for an old lady who let me perform the trial and error and thanked my explorative efforts. I weakly responded with “No problem,” and decided it was about time I switched that up. Maybe try “Any time!” next chance I got. It seemed folksier.
I meandered around for about an hour, trying to get a feel for what sort of books I wanted to start out with. I enjoyed the pace. Carrying The Tao of Pooh, Gardening For Dummies, The Fountainhead, and Tap Dancing at a Glance, I stood in line eating the last of the waffles. I noticed the guy ahead of me was carrying a squash racquet. I mentioned how much I loved the sport, but we both noted my unconvincing waistline. He directed me to a racquet club right down the street.

The club had squash courts, cycling, swimming, aerobics classes and rock climbing facilities. I approached the young girl working at the desk. Community college, I’d guess. One eye was bloodshot and both were sallow and wore old make up. When she greeted me and asked the basic questions, she smacked dryly.
It wasn’t until she ran through my options of memberships that I realized she had chocolate syrup—or something equally dark and syrupy—embedded in her unwashed bangs. She had to repeat the list because of my inability to divert my attention away from this substance rarely partnered with hair.     
As I walked around, inviting anyone who was carrying a racquet to a pick-up game, I found a vending machine and bought a bottle of water. I brought it to the girl working at the desk. She thanked me profusely—oh: my chance—“No time!”
She stared at my complete lapse of tact. I stared at all the questions dribbling down her forehead that would never get answered.

Panting, I planted my butt on the hard wooden bench, watching the old men enter the communal showers. No, I wasn’t quite there yet. I took off my shoes and traced the blisters that would soon become proud calluses.
Nelson sat down next to me, “Been a while, eh?”
“Haven’t played since college.”
“You still got the wrist uh’ight—just not the stamina.”
Squash is a tough game because of its simplicity. There’s rarely a kill shot available, so basically the only strategy is to hit the ball where your opponent is not. Tennis players usually put too much swing into it. It’s more of a wrist game. It’s a match of who can, most creatively, accomplish a plain task.
Nelson was as simple as you got. He was an older guy who hadn’t lost any of the size in which he carried all of his years. He smelled like a man who worked with dirt his whole life and was rewarded with woody pheromones. I guessed he used to be a contractor, because his ears held a pencil more naturally than I’d ever seen; in fact, in his entirety, he was the sort of man that would be held against others like a wooden pencil would be held up to a pen. He retained a tangible design of simplicity and reliability that three thousand years of evolution could not disturb.
“You give that little girl of yours a big hug for me, uh’ight?”

I walked Gwen to and from school every day that month. She talked about her friends and hobbies, but I kept wondering when we’d progress to a hug. I really wished the drought would end so I could take her for at least one walk in the rain.
Gwen had finished Jurassic Park and I had begun to write editorials for the neighborhood newsletter. Even though we both knew it was beneath her, she let me read The Little Prince to her at night. I told her I had always wanted to read it to my child, and apologized for putting it off so long.
On a clear day she excitedly asked if I would take her to the park after school. Gwen ran to play on the swings and I took a seat on the bench with my tap dance book. Debbie Gleason sat next to me. I recognized her from the carpool that amassed in the afternoons where I waited for Gwen. She was one of the more interesting moms. We exchanged pleasantries and she laughed and apologized for laughing and commented on the odd nature of my book. She didn’t know I could tap dance. I could not, I replied; I was only at the moment a scholar of it.
I found out she was a dental hygienist, and it reminded me I hadn’t had my teeth cleaned in a while. “I haven’t had my teeth cleaned in a while.”
“Oh?”
“Is it a good idea to get them cleaned regularly?”
“Well, I hope so. Otherwise I’ve been living a lie.”
“Okay, I’ll make an appointment. I can request you specifically, right?”
“Don’t feel obligated. And don’t say you’re going to if you’re really not.”
“No, I should—I want to. So I’ll make an appointment.”
“Carlie will know my schedule. Just give her a call.” She handed me a card.
“Okay, I’ll do that soon.”
“Good deal.”
I stared at my book without reading a word. “Are you happy?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Are you happy, Debbie?”
“Sure. Most of the time. I guess I don’t really have as many friends as I’d like. I only work part time, but I like the work because I like talking to people. That’s a weird question—are you happy?”
“I’m working on it. Definitely working on it.”
We both opened our books again.
“I liked your article in the newsletter about karma. A lot. It made a lot of sense.”
“Thanks. I’m writing one now to campaign for more sidewalks.”
“I like most of your articles, actually. They make a lot of sense to me.”
Gwen ran up and hopped on the bench. She leaned her head on my shoulder, cradling her legs into her stomach so that her entire weight rested on that one point on my shoulder. The gleeful screaming and metal scrapings of the playground went mute. The colors of the grass and the mulch and the blue slide went black. I felt no temperature, only her, and I sped up my breathing so that my shoulder and her head rose and fell together.
“You wanna come back tomorrow, kiddo?”
“Yeah.”
“What about you, Deb?”
“Sure.”
How sad it is that nothing real between us will ever touch; that in a microscopic perspective touch can be reduced to the repulsion of electrons, whose varying momentum is measured in pressure and texture. Yet the attempt is still such a lovely complement to this invention (by which I mean the heart), relying on each other to reconcile some connection between two irrational beings. How strange it is to be the owner of a shoulder; how strange it is to be anything at all.

After I dropped Gwen off the next morning, I decided to put some of my new gardening education into practice. I guessed Karen didn’t notice that I hadn’t been going to work. I made a note to TALK TO KAREN OPENLY and stuck it to my bookmark. She found me out that afternoon when she returned home to get some files she’d left behind and discovered all the doors were unlocked (which I had started advocating). She sauntered into the backyard, casually stepping over some bags of fertilizer, straining for mobility in her professional-length skirt. I looked up from the hibiscus I was planting.
I let her get it all out.
When she was done, I told her that I understood, that I was just taking a hiatus, that she made more money anyway (I had made this list in anticipation), that I needed some time to reorganize my priorities and aspirations, and that I’d be around to take over all the household chores—hadn’t she noticed how clean the house had gotten (which I underlined)?
She said we’d talk about it later. We didn’t.
I practiced some tap in front of the mirror most days, too, and watched as much Fred Astair and Gregory Hines as I could get my hands on. I smiled inwardly at how my little red book with Pooh on the cover was dwarfed by Karen’s massive marketing manuals. Sometimes I noticed that my book wasn’t quite where I had put it down the night before.
I devoted more attention to my voice in the newsletter. My most hard-hitting piece was an article about the dominance the swim team maintained over the neighborhood budget. I had been talking with a large collection of moms while waiting for Gwen, and had discovered some interesting goings-on involving the Buttermilk Creek MUD’s allocation of funds. My concluding statement was, “This current system of hegemony is as disgusting and misled as college athletics, but to a far more innocent and unaware audience. Never again forget that he who controls the swim team controls our tax dollars.” It was titled Swimming in Money. I included a clip art of Scrooge McDuck.
They asked me to stop contributing after that; there was too much truth for it to not make a splash (get it?). The stupid editor never allowed it to be printed, so I took it to my old job and, without saying a word or making eye contact, printed over four-hundred copies. Gwen and I escorted them door to door, to get a chance to meet some of our neighbors. I translated it into Spanish for all the Hispanic families, and even into mandarin for one Chinese family. They assured me they spoke fluent English, but, as I told them while I cupped their hands sincerely in mine, don’t ever let go of your culture.
When I was in the office printing off the second batch, my boss went ahead and officially fired me. I didn’t make a note to talk to Karen about that.    

The ball crashed against the tin, startling me, and Nelson swore and retreated to await my serve. I lobbed the ball. I hadn’t developed an especially dangerous serve, but I had—I scrambled diagonally from the T with my wrist cocked—distinguished myself quite effectively with a killer cross-court boast. The ball died at Nelson’s feet.
I dabbed the sweat from my eyes with my shirt. Nelson muttered that he was getting too old to run for those, as he opened the door and broke the seal of the echoing chamber. After almost two months I had just achieved my first victory. Not even a match, just one game. I was slowly becoming a more preferred solution by the law of parsimony. 
I showered at home and picked up Gwen. I had been eager all day because the meteorologist forecasted a 30% chance of rain, but it was barely cloudy. In college, whenever I couldn’t stand the lack of rain any longer, I’d get in my car and drive through a car wash. On the walk home I realized I could now afford a more realistic substitute.
I told Gwen to stand in the middle of the yard and not to move. I ran into the garage and turned the sprinklers on. I ran through the hissing percussion of their sudden inception on my way back to her. I told her to close her eyes and hoisted her up for a piggy back ride around the sputtering faucets. The beads freckled my eyes so I shut them and put my daughter down, hugging her while rogue droplets broke all around us. The winter pipes no doubt delivered them cold, but I was insulated by my daughter’s giggling.
“Excuse me, Mr. Fulton.”
Brenda Dawson stood at my curb, next to some other old chick I couldn’t place at the moment. She wore a yellow visor that matched her yellow shorts, the sort which did nothing to hide her pelvic pouch, nor had the ½ pound weights she held done much to tone the skin dangling from her arms. Her husband was the president of the homeowner’s association; her hands were on her hips.
“You know there’s a water ration in effect. You can’t use your sprinklers during the day.”
“I know, Brenda,” I spat water with each syllable, “I’m just playing with my daughter.”
“It’s not fair to use it when others can’t. And there’s no point watering the lawn in the middle of the day, it’ll evaporate before—”
“I’m not watering my lawn. I told you: I’m playing in my fucking sprinklers with my daughter.” Gwen covered her mouth with her hand, but her eyes betrayed her smile.
“You have no call to be that rude about it, Mr. Fulton!”  
Nope, I sure didn’t. On top of that, there was no need to flick her off. I didn’t have to start tap dancing on my lawn, framed by the skittering of adjacent sprinklers. I didn’t have to begin with basic jazz, nor transition into some modern jig, and assuredly not break into a full improvised freestyle, next to my daughter. She didn’t have to join in. Though she accomplished more hopping and stomping than any of the styles I’d studied, it was still jazz. The pools of grass didn’t have to shoot water up into the streams of its peers showering down, soaking us from all directions. It didn’t have to be the most romantic moment of my life, when I recognized her as independently beautiful, but knew never to dare murder her with perfection.
“What did I tell you about people like her, Gwen?”
“Child neglect!” Hop. “Child neglect!” Stomp.
I didn’t have to continue dancing after they left. But that’s just who I was now.

The hibiscuses (hibisci?) were flowering more than expected in such a dry winter. Maybe there in the corner I could start a vegetable garden. Maybe some peppers, or something viney that could coat the fence. I stood up. I could barely see above the fence.
I whistled while the sledgehammer dragged gutturally across the flagstone deck that Karen had bargained our relationship for. I couldn’t remember the last time I talked to my neighbor Eric. Raise. He had a wife, I was pretty sure. Crack. Never met her though. Raise. We were supposed to have them over some time ago. Splinter. He had a nicely-landscaped backyard; I could give him some pointers on his garden. Raise. That fence was kind of obtrusive: not a very neighborly concept. Obliterate. News said something about a cold front coming in tonight.

While the ceiling fan spun, I tried to follow one blade interminably. I thought it odd that ceiling fans provided their own source of light for their shadows—
“What are you thinking about?”
Trying to make ceiling fans into a metaphor. “Nothing, you?”
“Nothing. Can you tell me another story?”
I rolled over on my side. Gwen was on the floor next to me. “What should it be about?”
“How you met mommy.”
“Wow. I haven’t thought about that in a long time. Gosh, it’s actually really romantic. But it’s bed time right after, okay?”
She nodded. I began. There isn’t much difference between a good parent and a child. The only distinguishing factor is the ability to stay awake while successfully lulling the younger to sleep. It’s one of the many contests of sacrifice and endurance and denial of your own needs for the benefit of the child.
Three short taps on Gwen’s door woke me. They had been made with something plastic, their inflection was grave. Karen walked in with the phone in her hand. I put a finger to my lips and pointed to Gwen, sleeping. She mouthed, “We need to talk.”
I brushed my teeth robotically. Karen’s idea of talking sure wasn’t interested in valid responses. She said that Eric had stopped by to ask why I had torn down our fence—what the hell was I thinking? I told her she wasn’t complaining when I called it “firewood.” She wasn’t interested in semantics either.
Just prior, she had been on the phone with Brenda Dawson, who claimed that I had—she lowered her voice—flicked her off. Was that true? And now we were being warned for breaking the water ration. She poked me in the kidneys with some force.
I had begun forgiving shitty drivers, but it’d be a long time before I warmed up to forgiving people like Brenda Dawson—
“Are you having an affair?”
“What?!” Toothpaste rocketed onto the mirror and we both stared at the stain.
“Brenda also said you’ve been having ‘dates’ with Debbie Gleason in the park.”
I knew Karen had asked Gwen about it, too. “No. She’s just nice to talk to.”
“I trust you, I’m sorry. It was on my mind and I needed to get it out of the way.”
That wasn’t all, was it?
“You’ve been acting weird lately. I’m worried. You’ve obviously been fired. I didn’t know if you wanted to talk about that. Maybe that’s what’s messing you up, but you’ll find another job. And I can support us until you do.”
Just say it.
“And I don’t know how good it is for you to be spending so much time around Gwen right now. We can look up some counselors, if you want. I don’t mind going with you. Until then, Sam gave me some of her anti-depressants for you to try? She swears by them.”
She held out a pill. I couldn’t look her in the eyes. She set it on the counter. She grabbed a towel and affectionately wiped some toothpaste from the corner of my mouth and kissed the bottom of my chin. It used to be her favorite place to kiss me; it was all she could reach without raising on her tip-toes.
I left to tuck in Gwen.
“I heard you and mommy yelling. Is everything okay?”
“It’s fine…sort of. Well, maybe not everything. But that’s okay. Gwen, listen to me. Daddy’s still figuring some things out, about himself. But you wanna know a secret?”
She nodded.
“When I find them, I promise that you will get all the best parts of me.”
She held my hand, “Are you gonna pick me up tomorrow?”
“Sunshine—” I was recently in the habit of new endearments—“I have realized that everything else in my life is an unwelcome detour on my way to see you.”
I crawled into bed beside Karen.
“Have you started reading to her?” she asked.
“Sometimes. Sometimes we just lie on the floor and daydream.”
“About what?”
“I don’t know. There’s no talking allowed.”
“Oh? Is that a new parenting technique you learned in one of your little books?”
“Nope. Courtesy of George Carlin.” I sighed to end that conversation. “Tonight I told her the story of how we met.”
“Aw. You used to be so romantic.” She nestled herself into me and sighed. “Are we gonna be okay?”
“Sure.” But she lied sometimes, too.
She turned off the lamp and we made one-sided love. Before we went to sleep she asked if there was anything she could do for me. I said no, but I wished she could tell me that it’s still okay to cry. Tell me that she felt the weight of the world sometimes and it wasn’t all bad. Tell me that pain and loneliness were okay because they were teachers, too. Know that if she looked too close at me she wouldn’t yet see a man, just a boy. And a boy needs a girl.
I could hear her heavy breathing—but sleep how? In what sleep could I find rest next to someone to whom I had become a stranger. I blessed that bearable light down the hall that kept me awake and in ravenous search for the moment that I found enough of me to love her completely. As long as my eyes could find that darling bloom of light still sliding underneath my door, I felt vulnerable and alive.
Karen snorted her last waking breath. I watched the ceiling fan. This is how the world will end, the world will end, the world will end. Not with a bang, nor whimper, but with a great big profanity of one who is unforgivably late. And of what will replace it, I looked to every shard of light which seeped from that heart and hall, that every heavy blink and fault of mine shattered and repaired. The stream of light traveled beneath my bed unbroken, now through the wall, now gently rising in the open sky until it became the sun.

STEFAN McNINCH is, foremost, a product of the suburbs. On a path home to his spawning grounds, he graduated from the University of Texas with a Creative Writing degree and lingers in Austin as an improving novelist. His work has appeared in the University of Texas Anthology and has been selected as a storySouth finalist.